and Hearts” Revisited
Under-Appreciation of Greatness
April, 2015—My poem, “Ears and
Hearts,” (written in 2008, see below) raises the question: Why is
great art so often under-appreciated in its own time? I am not the
first to ask this question, of course. But up to now I have not
heard anyone offer a reasonably satisfactory explanation. Obviously
this is not a universal phenomenon. Shakespeare’s plays were
well-loved in Elizabethan England. Mozart was an acknowledged genius
while he was alive—even if the people of Vienna had some
difficulty judging the quality of his music compared to that of Antonio
Salieri. Still, we are dealing with a common enough phenomenon.
At the end of the poem I promise to share
any insights I may gather about this question. The present essay is an
attempt to fulfill that pledge. It’s the result of many years of
contemplation but, more importantly, two “Eureka” moments
that occurred in the last few months. I am not going to suggest that I
have resolved our dilemma for all time. But perhaps the aspects that I
touch on below will help us by developing some useful insight.
moment number 1
I was listening to a radio interview (sorry,
memory does not permit me to cite the original source) about popular
culture, when the person being interviewed noted that the parents of
each generation cannot understand the popular music of their own
children. It’s true, I thought to myself: My parents could
not understand rock. Their parents could not understand swing. I still
struggle to understand hip-hop—though I’m making an effort,
with perhaps some glimmer emerging after many years.
So let me pose the question: What would have
happened had someone invented hip-hop in the 1950s and presented it to
young people who were just developing a culture of rock and roll?
What if a different someone had tried to get up on stage and
perform rock music during the Big Band era? Answer—a phenomenon
similar to what Mahler experienced, as recounted in the poem: A lot of
head-scratching from the audience. And thus we can, perhaps, begin to
make a connection. Maybe this general phenomenon of popular culture
relates to other kinds of culture as well?
One feature that often contributes to great
art is a bold creativity. (This is particularly valued in our present
era. It was not always the prevailing aesthetic.) And great art that
displays this innovative quality is, it seems to me, most likely to be
underappreciated by contemporary observers—because it will
anticipate trends and therefore set them. If such work emerges a
generation before the trend is ready to be accepted, then the art
itself will not be accepted for a generation. Perhaps this is one part
of the explanation for our difficulty—even if the insight gained
is merely descriptive and does not consider causes.
Let us, then, begin to consider causes by
moving on to of “Eureka moment number 2.”
moment number 2
Recently I attended a political event where
two poets, a bit more famous than I, had been invited to perform their
work. As each of them stood at the mike I asked myself
“why?” The poems were long and, for the most part, simply
repeated commonplace truths that everyone becomes aware of after
spending five or ten minutes in the struggle for social justice. There
was nothing particularly innovative or creative here in terms of either
content or style. One of the poems, in fact, relied heavily on a rather
clichéd technical device. Yet each of the poets, when she was
finished, was greeted with a standing ovation and wild applause.
I have to assume that the audience reaction
was genuine, strange as it seemed to me at the time. This was not an
audience that was getting up and offering a standing ovation to
everyone. Most speakers were, in fact, greeted in a rather ho-hum
fashion. Since it was a dinner event the chairperson even had to
struggle to keep people from engaging in personal conversations while
speakers were making their remarks. So it was obvious that the audience
had been genuinely stirred by the work of these two poets which, quite
frankly, left me not only unmoved but rather wishing I hadn’t had
to sit through their recitations. I could, of course, conclude that the
problem was simply me and my own perceptions. Maybe. And you are
entitled to draw that conclusion if you like. But I don’t
actually believe it. So I began searching for an explanation.
To some extent we can probably find that
explanation, or part of it, in the general culture of mediocrity which
infects our society. Movies and TV shows that insult the intelligence
of anyone who has even a smattering of intelligence become smash hits.
Novels where the plot depends on one or more characters acting out of
character, or on some genre device that has been done to death (like
the poetic device that one of our two performers relied on that
evening), become runaway best sellers. So few people seem to care about
excellence or originality any more, or about real substance. Even good
writers (or those who were once good writers) get seduced by the easy
formula that brings quick popular acclaim, and financial rewards. My
guess is that this is part of what was happening during the event
But I think something else was probably
happening too: People actually enjoy what is familiar, even
commonplace. They are comfortable with it. They don’t necessarily
want to be challenged in ways that will force them to think new
thoughts or consider new insights. I hope it’s not too cynical to
believe that perhaps this pattern extends even beyond our present
culture of mediocrity, back in time to previous generations.
If this observation is true then it might
offer us an explanation for why it sometimes takes a generational shift
before innovative artistic movements are accepted. Surely, if most
people are attracted to what is comfortable and familiar in their
cultural life, the older we get the stronger that tendency is likely to
become. A younger generation is going to accept a new movement far more
easily than an older generation—perhaps simply because the
“new” idea has been around for a while, is not quite so
“new” any longer.
Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable
for any culture to reserve a place for what is familiar and
comfortable. No problem with that in itself. Many long and valued
cultural traditions—especially folk traditions—are based on
this kind of creativity. And the extremely skillful/polished
reproduction of that which is traditionally valued can also, quite
correctly, be considered “great”—something we often
acknowledge in relation to performing artists.
But human culture, taken as a whole,
simultaneously values innovation (see “Eureka moment number
1” above). Artistic thought cannot advance even by the most
skillful repetition of that which has become familiar and expected any
more than philosophy, or science, or political thought can. The
innovators in each of these fields, and in so many others, are rightly
valued-most-highly once their contributions are understood for what
they are. But it’s not always obvious at the outset which
innovative thought really does represent a road to new discoveries
about the world—discoveries that can, then, become something
familiar and commonplace for the next generation. Sometimes a new idea
is not really worth much. The process of sorting out which is which
takes time, and as we struggle with it mistakes will be made in both
directions: giving great acclaim on occasion to that which is not worth
much while ignoring truly substantial contributions. It’s not
uncommon for this process to remain unresolved until after the death of
I repeat, this is true in science,
philosophy, and other fields as well as in the arts. Viewed from this
perspective we realize that the pattern we are trying to understand
affects all fields of human endeavor in which creative energies might
be expended, not just the arts.
Finally, let me add a third aspect, which is
not exactly a “eureka” moment, because it’s a thought
that has been growing in my consciousness for some time based on my own
personal experience. I cannot offer testimony that this is a universal
experience, but I’m inclined to believe that the same dynamics
must affect other people as well.
I have always tried to maintain a mind
that’s open to new ideas. I believe I succeed, at least as much
as and probably more than most people do. But I notice a very distinct
tendency in my own patterns of thought nonetheless: When I am initially
confronted with an idea or proposal that clashes vigorously with things
I already believe, my first (pretty-much instinctive) reaction is to
just say “no,” to reject it as absurd. The second time
someone else raises the same thought with me, however, I am much more
inclined to consider it in a serious way. Apparently my subconscious
has been working on the problem between these two moments,
contemplating the creative pathways that might be opened up by
accepting what is new, even if only in a partial way. And so I begin to
become more able to rethink what I had once believed to be the only way
one could reasonably look at a particular problem.
Art that is great because it is bold and
innovative—clashing with preconceptions about art and about life
that we have been trained in, sometimes for the entire history of the
human species—is obviously going to confront this difficulty when
it is offered to those who share the same mental tendency with me. The
individual who first initiates a bold approach to whatever art we might
be considering is going to have a tough time gaining people’s
acceptance. Such an artist may then, quite reasonably, pose the
question, as Gustav Mahler posed it to Alma more than a century ago:
“Where do people keep their ears, and their hearts, if they
can’t hear (see, feel, understand) that?”
He tried the music out first in Budapest,
1889, but there was considerable
including, according to one reporter,
"a small, but for all that audible,
By 1900 the experience had been repeated,
complete with audience indifference,
in Hamburg, Weimar (twice), and Berlin.
"Damn it all, where
do people keep their ears
and their hearts
if they can't hear that"
Gustav wrote to Alma.
And it took fifteen years
from start to finish,
before he would finally publish
his "Symphony Number One,"
which allows me to sit here this evening,
thrilled by the Chicago Symphony
mind wandering to times
I recited a poem, then returned
to my seat wondering "Where
do people keep their ears,
and their hearts?"
put that particular verse away, resolved
never to read it in public again.
And before Mahler's final chords
have faded I have decided
to take one or two of these pieces
out for my next featured reading,
and the next
and then for the one after that too,
until someday, perhaps,
I will be able to offer you
a satisfactory answer
to this question.
Submit a comment
Pam McAllister, New York:
I love the Mahler
quote you use to tie the whole thing together. I’m reminded of the initial
reception received by Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." The 1913 Paris
audience was divided into the "fashionable" set who liked tradition and
the "Bohemians" who usually loved anything new. But, both united in
their hared of the ballet's choreography and music. Derisive laughter
turned to hissing and booing, which erupted into a full blown riot, by
some reports. Press reviews were hostile. Then WWI broke out....
And both Mozart and
Bach were accused of writing "too many notes." I can't find the
reference, but remember hearing that, after Bach was criticized for
writing church music that was too complex, with too many notes, he
responded by playing with only one finger for a couple weeks. Ha!
I also think there
are multiple reasons for applause, not just one. Sometimes, it's to
honor the person who has stuck with their art for a long time. We show
our appreciation and our encouragement. Other times, we like to have
our counter-cultural perspectives affirmed, not challenged.
favorite section of your essay was "Another insight?" because I could
relate to your experience of initially rejecting new ideas, but, on
second hearing, being more open. I think that's the nature of true
change. It's like tending a garden. The new ideas need to be planted,
watered, tended. Only then will they bloom. It doesn't sound very
radical, but it is.
Visit Pam's blog at: http://activistswithattitude.com
* Sheena King, State Correctional Institute at Muncy, PA
Your essay (by the way I
love the title) moved me and Eureaka moment number 1 resonated with
me.That insight is very similar to my own appreciation of this subject.
Like many others I've often wondered why artistic geniuses died
pennless and without recognition until a future generation stumbles
upon their work. I believe many of the greats were forward thinkers and
creators so their works were before their time, could not be received,
or appreciated and accepted, by their own generation. So, so tragic.
* Mary Ellen Sanger, Colorado:
I enjoyed your
essay. It makes me think, too, of clashes of culture like… being
able to appreciate Chinese opera, for example. Or opera at all, for
some people! It’s something my brother noted, when visiting me in
Mexico. “Americans’ taste buds are asleep! All we know is
ketchup and mustard!” (When confronted with a blackened chile
condiment of some kind.)
There are those who
like the familiar… and those of us who prefer the jolt of the
different, I guess.
* Zool Zulkowitz, New York:
Just a first
response to the subject of a much longer conversation.
noticed, while visiting the Met, or MoMA, or the Louvre, that many
people seem to spend more time with the name on the label, rather than
with the art itself. Maybe you remember the name of the Joni
Mitchell song about the street musician she passes while on the way to
the concert hall in her limo. He plays so sweetly, but no one
stops to listen, as they've never seen him on TV.
So, yes, certainly
there is great art that is under-appreciated or unappreciated in its
time. Or, maybe never at all. Imagine the beauty of things
I think that all art
and culture is a continuation of all that precedes it; the concept is
rarely new, but the mode or technology is. I happen to think that
some of the best art today can be seen on your television. But
these things are always a matter of taste, and the moment you find
As for the poets who
receive an over-appreciated ovation, it is not unusual for an audience
to applaud an over-rated performer and ignore the real thing.
* Paula Panzarella, Connecticut:
Too often, artists
are too advanced for the time, and society has to play a catch-up game.
Or maybe the unknown artists end up discovered forty years later in
dusty archives and everyone oohs and ahhs them when they're dead.
Being creative is
kind of like if you're a psychic, and everyone you talk with says no,
you don't know what you're talking about, that can't be right, and no
matter what you do, you can't convince them. And when time proves
you're right, they don't even remember that you predicted it, so you're
robbed of the "I told you so" moment.
If people can't
relate to an innovative form, the nuances probably won't be examined.
"Too much work" to understand something one doesn't understand or like.
Maybe we're all